Author's Note

Four of the stories I have posted are less than 100 pages, type-written.  The Lady with the Dark Glasses is less than 30 pages, Beauty and the Fraud and Kendrick run around 60 pages, and The Angel of Mercy is just under 100.  Whitewater and River Bend are both full-length novels, and Return to River Bend will also be longer.

Of the four "shorter" stories, I personally think this is the best one.  The characters are good, and there is an underlying moral theme that the others do not have.  There are a few fairly tense places that I think enhance the story as well.  I hope you enjoy it.

I do know one thing, though.  Dear reader, you will love "the angel of mercy" in this story.  Everybody loves Missy...

Mark K. Lewis

Chapter One—The Bad

     “All right, Oldham, time for you to go.” With a scowl of disgust, the jailor unlocked the cell door, opened it, and stood back to let its lone occupant exit.
     Sert Oldham smiled. This is the day for which he had been waiting 15 years. 15 years ago some high-brow judge put him away for armed robbery. He had been in this hot, stinking, miserable prison for…15 years. And now…the day of his release. The day he had been waiting for… for 15 years.
     Great Plains Prison was in the middle of the northwestern prairie. 130 degrees in the summer and 30 below zero in winter. At least that’s the way it felt to Sert. The food was a mixture of horse dung and calf slobber, the water was brown with slugs in it, and he hadn’t had a bath in five years. All I did was rob a bank. Well, I shot the teller, too, but he didn’t die. That was what Judge Martin Wayne had put him in prison for, but then again, it wasn’t. Oldham had killed at least a dozen people, though none of them could ever be proven against him. But they caught him robbing the bank. And Wayne tossed him in the hoosegow for 15 years. “I’ll get you for this, Wayne,” Oldham had shouted on his way out of the courtroom. “Just wait. I’ll be out and get you for this.” Oldham smiled again. Yeah, Wayne, I’ll get you now. Nobody puts Sert Oldham in jail and lives to tell about it.
     Fifteen years…But I’m only 38. I’ve got plenty of good life left…Another smile.
     Oldham got up and walked out the door. On his way, he “tripped” and his head butted the guard in the face. “Oh, sorry, Chaney. I slipped.”
     The guard now had a busted lip and he was about to swing at Oldham. But he decided against it. Sert was over 6 feet tall and, in spite of the prison chow, still weighed over 200 pounds. Chaney was several inches and quite a few pounds short of Oldham. So he let it pass. “Yeah, sure, Oldham. Just get out of here, will you?”
     “Be glad to, kind sir,” Sert said, with fake honey dripping from his voice. He was as happy as he had been in…15 years.
     He walked down the long hall. Other prisoners hollered at him and he waved, smiled, and joked. Out the door of the cells; all the paperwork had been done. At the gate of the prison, he was given a canteen of water and a suit of old, worn clothes, that might fit him and might not. “Follow the trail for 25 miles and you’ll come to Carver City,” the guard told him.
     “I know—“ but the door slammed shut in his face and that was that. Oldham scowled and spit on the door. Then he grinned. Free! I’m free! He breathed in deeply. The first decent breath I’ve had in 15 years. He looked around him. It was 9 AM in the morning and the sun was shining brightly on this early-September day. He saw low, rolling hills, covered in brown grass, but with high mountains visible in the distance. Oldham hitched the canteen to his shoulder and started walking. He knew what he was going to do. He had had 15 years to think about it.
     First thing is, I got to get a horse and some food. And a gun. Then I’ll “borrow” some money. Got to be careful not to get caught, though. Then, Martin Wayne. He’s the first I’ll bury. After him, that swine Marshal who arrested me, Dan Foster. I sure hope they are both still alive so that they won’t be for too much longer. Oldham grinned at that bit of confusion. But, there’s time. I’m free…got all the time in the world…
     And with that he took another deep breath.

     Sert Oldham walked for about five miles and came to a stream. He took off his old prison clothes, tossed them away, and washed up in the water as best he could, getting years of dirt, sweat, and grime off. He’d been allowed to keep himself fairly well groomed in Grand Buttes Prison. His black hair was shoulder length, a little longer than he liked, and his black beard could use a trim, too, but it could have been worse. He was strong—breaking rocks will build muscles—and had always had a lot of stamina, so the 25 mile walk to Carver City wouldn’t tax him much. Horse…gun…money…that was the order. I can always get some food…In fact, there were some wild blackberries growing along the bank of the stream and he ate several of those. Mmm, good…first fruit I’ve had in…15 years…He boiled in anger at the thought of those 15 years…15 years of my life gone…boy, I’m gonna make Wayne and Foster pay…maybe I’ll roast their brains…gut shoot ‘em…pull their innards out through their mouths…Oldham chuckled at the thought. Revenge would be sweet.
     He finished washing up and put on the clothes given to him as he left the prison. They were a little small, but they’d do…till I can steal s’more…he smiled. He continued walking towards Carver City…
     But he never made it because he didn’t have to. In a few more miles, he saw some buildings. Hmm, a ranch…I can get a horse there…probably a gun…maybe some food…money… then he smiled….lots o’ money…
     But as he drew nearer, he saw it wasn’t a ranch. There was a barn and couple of other outbuildings, but there was a sign outside that said “Earl and Barb’s Trading Post.” It was actually at a crossroads, and the stage probably stopped, as well as anyone traveling one way or the other. Oh, this is even better, Oldham thought. I’m sure they’ll have everything I’ll need…
     He walked up to the trading post and saw a man coming out the front door. “Howdy, stranger,” the man said affably enough. But his eyes held a little suspicion. “Long way to nowhere without a horse.”
     Sert shook his head in disgust. “Yeah. Lost mine up the trail a ways when he stepped in a gopher hole. Used my last bullet to put him out of his misery. Gun was old so I tossed it, too. I knew the tradin’ post was here, thought I could get what I need.”
     The man, Earl, obviously believed the story and brightened a bit. “Sure. I think we can get you all fixed up. What exactly do you need?….”
     Oldham followed him into the store and looked around. All sorts of goods were in stock—food, clothes, leather goods, and, what mainly caught Oldham’s eyes, a rack full of guns and ammo—rifles and pistols. I’ll take one of each…
     Earl was probably in his mid-40s, tall, stringy fellow…weak and harmless, the outlaw thought. I need to find out who’s here…”You run this place by yourself?”
     “Oh, no, my wife Barbara is here and my daughter Donna. We ain’t gonna get rich doin’ this, but we make out all right.”
     “You got a horse you can sell me?”
     “Yeah, I reckon so. What do you need in here first, then I’ll show you what I’ve got.”
     “Lemme see your guns.”
     “Right over here.” And Oldham followed him to the gun rack.
     While he and Earl were talking about the firearms, two women walked in—well, a woman and a girl. The woman was as fat as an elephant; got a nose like one, too. The girl was just the opposite. She was a string bean, like her dad, certainly no beauty, but better to look at than her mom. She couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old, though.
     Oldham smiled at them. Earl introduced his wife and daughter and explained what had happened to Oldham—at least, the story Oldham had told him. “Nice to meet you ladies,” Sert said, with some charm in his voice.
     Barbara smiled and said, “It’s nice to meet you, too, Mr. Oldham. We are going to have lunch soon. Would you like to join us?”
     “Well, that would be right nice of you, ma’am. I didn’t have nothin’ to eat this mornin’ but some jerky and that shore didn’t go far t’ fill me up.” And he smiled. A charming smile. He could do it when he wanted to and he knew it. Barbara almost blushed, then told her daughter to go into the kitchen and prepare a meal.
     “It won’t take long,” she said, “and Donna is a good cook.”
     “Well, I bet she had a good teacher,” Oldham said, pouring on more elegance. And again, Barbara blushed.
     Then Oldham said to Earl. “Let me see that .45. You got the ammo for it?”
     “Yes, right here.” He leaned over the counter, picked up a box, and handed it to Sert.
     Oldham fiddled with the gun; it had been…15 years…since he had had one in his hands, but he was a natural. He glanced at Barbara—Donna was gone—and saw her cleaning some shelves. He loaded the gun, and without a word, pointed it at Earl and fired. The man had a shocked expression on his face as the bullet knocked him several feet back, but he was dead before he hit the floor. Barbara turned and screamed, but the scream became a gurgle when a bullet slammed into her throat. She backed up a step, Oldham shot her in the face, and the building shook a little when she fell to the floor.
     “What an ugly pig,” Oldham said. “You look better with your face all smashed up and bloody.”
     Donna came running in from the kitchen, which was behind Oldham, and he heard her gasp. She looked at her father and mother with a horrified expression on her face. Then she stared at the murdere. Her mouth moved but no words came out.
     Oldham walked over to her, and for sheer meanness, he hit her. As hard as he could, with his fist, in the jaw. The girl grunted at the blow and was knocked back into a stack of canned goods. Oldham smiled. Mmm, that felt nice…I ain’t hit a woman in a long time…One of the dozen or so people Oldham had killed was his wife, whom he had beaten to death because…well, because he didn’t like her and he wanted to work on his left uppercut. Oldham felt that was reason enough. He had taken her body and dumped it in the desert for the buzzards and coyotes and no one was ever the wiser. “She went back t’ visit her mother,” he told people when asked. And, of course, she never returned.
     He looked down at Donna, who was dazed, but conscious. He might have done something else with her, but he didn’t want to waste the time. Gotta git some stuff and git outta here…She’s too ugly anyway…So he shot her in the head.
     It didn’t take Oldham long to find the horse he wanted. The pickings weren’t too good—there were only four and none of them were studs—but one of them would do until he found something better. Think I’ll take two of ‘em…use one for a pack horse.
     He saddled both horses and led them to the front of the trading post. He intended to stock up on food, as well as take the .45, a rifle, and as much ammo as he could carry. Might as well get some new clothes, too…oh, and raid the till, if they got any money…He went back inside, into the kitchen and found the food that Donna had been preparing and had his fill. A bottle of whiskey was sitting on a table; he drank half of that and sighed. 15 years…Oldham took the bottle with him. He discovered three more bottles on a shelf and confiscated those as well.
     He found some canvas sacks and started filling them with everything he thought he’d need. He located the money till; there wasn’t much. He counted $45.34. Well, I’ll get some more somewhere
     Oldham loaded everything onto the pack horse, and had one more thing to do. He had seen a can of kerosene in the barn, so he went and got it. Then, back inside the trading post, he sloshed most of the kerosene all around the building. He piled Earl, Barb, and Donna close to each other; for the fun of it, he locked Earl and Barbara’s hands together. “Reckon you and that pig can go to eternity holdin’ hands,” he said to Earl’s corpse. Then he poured the rest of the kerosene on the bodies. He lit a match and tossed it onto Earl’s corpse. The kerosene lit immediately. Oldham then stood outside the front door, tossed another match into the trading post, and watched flames erupt again. Satisfied, he mounted his newly stolen horse and rode away from Earl and Barb’s Trading Post without looking back.
     And without a thought or qualm of conscience about anything he had done.

Chapter Two—The Ugly

     I really resent the title of this chapter, because it’s about me. I know I’m not the most handsome critter on earth, but “ugly” is a bit strong. “Stupid” might be a better word, especially given what happened. Here’s the tale.

     Fern Withers was a loser; that’s about the only word for it. He was a drifter, a drunk, he could never hold a job, and he didn’t really want to. So maybe he wasn’t a loser after all if he was doing what he wanted. But he certainly wasn’t a productive member of society. That made him a thief. Yet, he was basically harmless.
     When he needed money, he developed a unique way of obtaining it. He would get some ketchup, wait alongside the road for an unsuspecting sucker, and when he saw one, rub some of the ketchup on his forehead and lay in the middle of the road. The Good Samaritan sucker would stop, of course; how can any decent individual pass by someone lying in the road with “blood” on his face? Fern would then “wake up,” point a gun at the now-surprised do-gooder and make off with his money, and anything else he wanted. It worked pretty well and kept Fern in booze and women. When he ran out of money, he’d do it again.

     Do I have to paint a picture of the next event in this story?

     I’m usually smarter than that and tend to be very suspicious. But I had been traveling for a long time and I was tired, dead tired. When I saw the poor unfortunate sprawled in the middle of the road with what looked like blood on his forehead, I did what any other…unsuspecting sucker…would do. I stopped to investigate.
     I kneeled down and Fern Withers came to life, conking me on the head with the butt of his pistol. I went out like a light, and it was my turn to lay in the road for a while….

     Fern chuckled. Tee hee, got another one…He wiped the ketchup off his forehead and started inspecting his catch. He went through the man’s pockets and found a couple of interesting things. The first item caused his eyes to bug out. Wow. I think I’ll keep this, it might come in handy…The man’s wallet produced a little over $50 in cash, which Fern confiscated, of course. Wish it had been a bit more, but hey, I’ve had worse days. I’ll keep the wallet and identification, though, it could be useful at some point… He looked at the man’s gun and holster, and considered, but decided against taking that. I like my own gun. There was nothing else on the fellow’s person that Fern wanted, so he stood up and looked at the man’s horse.
     Hmm, that’s a good looking horse, a lot better than the nag I ride. I think I’ll take him and leave this feller with mine. The horse started backing away and shaking his head, obviously understanding Fern’s intent. Fern talked sweetly to the animal and tried to approach, but he couldn’t get near. Stupid beast. I ought to shoot you. But he just shrugged and thought, I reckon I better get along in case somebody else happens by. So with a new stash of booty, Fern walked over to his horse, mounted, saluted the poor chump in the road, said “thank you,” and rode off.

     It had been late morning when I stopped to “help” the fellow sprawled in the road. I guess I did “help” him, didn’t I…..Well, when I woke up, I could tell it was the middle of the afternoon. I had a headache that went from one side of my head to the other, and from the top of it all the way down to the bottom of my feet. That’s quite a headache, folks. The first time I tried to sit up, pain shot through me like a lightening bolt, and I almost threw up. I closed my eyes tightly, took several deep breaths, and when I calmed a bit, opened my eyes again. Blurry. I shook my head and opened them again. A little better. I probably had a pretty good concussion—banging one’s head against the butt of a gun will do that—so I moved slowly and carefully.
     I stood up and took another deep breath. I wobbled, took a step, and fell to my knees again, with agonizing pain lancing through my head. Still breathing hard, I took a few moments to let that pain pass, and then tried to stand up again. By this time, a horse had trotted over and snorted softly, so I leaned against the saddle. I stayed that way for about two minutes, just letting the throbbing subside, along with the spinning in my head.
     Once my head cleared a little bit, I began to take stock of where I was. What happened? I thought about it and couldn’t remember. I looked at the horse. “Are you my horse?” I couldn’t remember that, either. “You must be my horse, or you wouldn’t have come over. How come I can’t remember you?” For a moment, I figured it was just taking a little time for my head to clear, but after a couple more minutes, I began to get concerned.
     And what really bothered me was…I couldn’t remember my own name.
     I felt my head and found a pretty big bump on my noggin. I tried to think. Did I fall off the horse? My mind spun and I closed my eyes again, supporting myself against the saddle. Who am I? I flat couldn’t remember.
     I had enough sense about me now to search my clothes. I found no wallet or identification. I checked the saddle bags, beginning to panic a little. I found some clothes, ammo, jerky, coffee and pot, and a few other essentials—including some money—but nothing that told me who I was. I said to the horse, “Ok, horse, you got a name. Tell me what it is. Then tell me mine.”
     The horse just nickered. He’s laughing at me. Well, I guess it was funny—to him.
     I didn’t panic too much. I suspected that I had probably been riding, gotten tired, fallen asleep, toppled from the horse, and landed on my head, perhaps hitting a rock and causing temporary amnesia. But it still bugged me a bit. If you’ve ever had amnesia, and can’t remember anything, then it’s a bit frightening. I closed my eyes and tried to recall something…a few flashes zipped through my mind—some trees, a lake, snow-capped mountains, false-fronted buildings. Well, I must be in the west, which, from looking around me at the scenery—rolling hills with mountains not too far away—didn’t take much to deduce. I pulled a face. At least I know what the “west” is…
     My head started hurting again at the mental strain, so I decided to stop trying to recall stuff. It will all come back to me soon…I hope…I wasn’t a doctor—at least I didn’t think I was, I really didn’t know what I was—so I didn’t know much about amnesia, but I was confident I’d get better. Somehow I knew I had been bopped on the head before and I was still alive and had a brain, so I reckoned I’d get better in time.
     Still, it wasn’t pleasant not being able to recollect anything in my life. At least, not put anything together. A few more visions—a man and a woman, older…dad and mom? A ranch house…home? Am I a rancher? A dog, black lab…mine? I shook my head, frustrated. Then another lightening bolt flashed through my head, and I squeezed my eyes shut and held on to the saddle until it passed. Well, that’s what I get for thinking, I guess…I probably was never good at it, anyway…
     I happened to glance to my right and, about 20 yards away, I saw a snake slithering lazily across the road. I hate snakes, so I pulled my gun and fired. The snake’s head came flying off. I nodded, satisfied, then stopped. How do I know I don’t like snakes? And then, something a little more eerie—the gunshot. Blowing the head off a snake at 60 feet with a pistol is no mean feat. I frowned, then glanced around and saw a tree across the road, probably 50 yards away. There was a dead limb hanging down from one of the branches. I didn’t even aim, I just shot from the hip, and the limb disappeared. I was thoughtful as I re-holstered my gun. I’m pretty good with this thing…I felt of my hip. A knife in a sheath. I pulled it out, pivoted, and threw it. It thudded into a knot in a fence post across the road—right where I had intended for it to go. My head swam at my rapid movement, but that cleared in a few moments. I walked over, shaky but pensive, and pulled the knife from the post.
     Who am I? Well, whoever I am, I’m pretty good with weapons….
     I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.

     After a few minutes, when I felt up to it, I mounted my horse, whom I called Horse. He seemed to respond to that, so maybe that was his name after all. “What’s my name, buddy?” I asked him………..”No, I don’t think my name is ‘Whinny.’ At least, I’m not going to respond to it.”
     I started to gig Horse and take off, but then…I didn’t know where I was going. Or what direction I had come from. Which way? My head started hurting again, and I swayed in the saddle. I closed my eyes and it passed. I figured out how I could tell what direction I had been traveling in. I rode in one direction for about 50 yards, then studying the tracks Horse had left, I went about 50 yards beyond where I had woken up and, sure enough, it was fairly obvious we had come from this direction. So I turned around again, and that’s the way we went. From the position of the sun, it appeared we were headed in a northwesterly direction. Towards some nice, high mountains. I wonder where I’m going. Will I recognize where I’m going when I get there? How long am I going to be like this? It was frustrating and aggravating, to say the least.
     But it was what it was and I was going to have to live with it until it wasn’t what it was.

Chapter Three—The Good

     There were a lot of decent religious people in the town of Silver Creek, and some of them tended to be a little superstitious. Or overly religious. Or maybe they were right. But whatever the reason, they literally thought she was an angel who was living among them. After all, the Bible says that some people have entertained angels unawares.
     Her name was Missy Jacobs. She was certainly as lovely, externally and internally, as an angel. About 5’4”, she had golden brown hair that shaped her face and ended at her shoulders. Her skin was soft, lightly tan, and almost transparent. Her eyes were slender, and of a dazzling shade of green. Her nose, lips, and chin were proportioned perfectly. She wasn’t large anywhere, but again, everything on her fit precisely. Missy wasn’t a classical beauty, but there wasn’t a man in Silver Creek—or a woman—who didn’t find her exceedingly attractive. Most of the females were jealous of the way she looked, but they all loved her. Everybody loved Missy.
     She always had a soft smile and a kind word. She was never loud or ostentatious. She moved gracefully, but easily, and no one ever thought she was trying to draw attention to herself or that she expected anything from anyone. Missy was a quiet, selfless, unassuming, helpful…angel. If she ever had a bad thought about anyone, it never escaped her lips.
     And given her upbringing, this was all the more amazing….

     Missy was one of the local schoolteachers. Silver Creek was a small town, perhaps 350 people, though the farm and ranch population in the area that the town serviced expanded that figure somewhat. There were enough children for two schools, and oddly, they had been built on opposite ends of town. Missy taught the younger ones, up through the sixth grade. Only 21 years old, she had moved to Silver Creek from back east a couple of years before because her grandmother needed her. Missy hadn’t especially been excited about the move, but she felt a duty to her older relative, so she came. The school teaching job had been promised to her before she arrived at Silver Creek, so she was able to live fairly comfortably. It was the grandmother….more about her in a moment.
     Back to Missy’s early life. It was, in a word, horrible. She was raised by a drunken brawler and a whore, with a sadistic, unhinged grandmother frequently thrown into the mix. She was the only child of Henry and Francis Jacobs. Missy’s earliest memories were of different places, moving around a lot. Her father was unable to hold a job because he couldn’t stay away from a bottle. Missy was scared to death of him because, when he came home drunk, which was most nights, if her mother wasn’t there, he would whip his daughter mercilessly with a belt. Francis, as often as not, was with another man, something that didn’t bother Henry too much. He had Missy to take it out on.
     Henry, however, left the family when Missy was 7 years old—for good. He was killed in a saloon fight in western Kansas. Francis supported herself and her daughter by going to work at that saloon, mostly in the upstairs rooms. Missy went to school and did what little odd jobs she could that might bring in a nickel or a dime occasionally. She was a bright, intelligent, sweet girl; the tragedy of her home life didn’t seem to affect her disposition at all—except she tended to be very quiet. But she had a heart of gold. She would stop and pet every dog or cat she saw—none of them ever ran from her. Butterflies would land on her outstretched finger, even deer would come up to her and let her stroke and feed them. She seemed as innocent and as harmless as a lamb. There wasn’t a deceitful bone in her body. And everybody but her father and mother recognized it.
     But life was difficult. She realized, by the time she was 12, exactly what her mother was doing. It saddened her, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. They lived in a dirty, drafty boarding house; Missy, literally, might not see her mother for 3 or 4 days. Francis worked at night and Missy went to school during the day. Francis, often, would already be at the saloon by the time her daughter arrived home from school, and then Missy would be in bed when her mother got home. And then gone to school before Francis got up the next morning. Missy learned to take care of herself.
     This less-than-idyllic life was also unpleasantly interrupted every year by her grandmother, Francis’ mother. Judy Boatner was her name, and she was the embodiment of the sanctimonious spinster. Tall, thin, bespectacled, with her hair in a bun, she never married. Francis was the child of a tryst, but Judy told her daughter that her father—lawfully wedded to Judy—died when Francis was just a baby. Francis learned otherwise, but it didn’t bother her. Nothing really bothered her much. She wasn’t endowed with an overly active conscience or a driving ambition; being a soiled dove and letting her daughter fend for herself suited her just fine.
     Judy also tended towards mental instability. She could go from sadistic witch to thoughtful maiden, and then back again, within a very short period of time. “Schizophrenic” would be the eventual term, but “crazy” was the current one.
     Anyway, Judy came for a visit each year between Missy’s 8th and 16th birthdays. She stayed about six weeks on each occasion. Being the self-righteous prude that she was, she believed unreservedly in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Missy’s mother had never really disciplined her—the girl hadn’t needed it—but to Judy, her granddaughter was as wild as an unbroken filly. So Missy spent a lot of time over Judy’s knee, her bare bottom getting intimately acquainted and reacquainted—and reacquainted—with her grandmother’s wooden paddle—for such offenses as overcooking the potatoes, or churning the butter too fast, or neglecting to make her bed before breakfast. Missy never complained or balked; she accepted her “punishment” without murmur, always hugged her grandmother afterwards, and promised to do better. Judy’s last visit was when Missy was 16 years old, and grandmother hadn’t changed a bit, still thinking of her granddaughter as a spoiled child who needed firm backside discipline—“firm” when grandma was in a “thoughtful” mood, but pitiless when she was a witch. And she dished it out to Missy several times in the six weeks she stayed. But, as always, Missy didn’t fight or argue—and was even sad to see the train with her grandmother on it leave the depot, even though Judy had spanked her soundly that very morning—and not in the “firm” mode. "When will she be back?” Missy had asked her mother, with a tear in her eye, waving to her departing “Grandma” as the train rolled away from the station.
     Francis, as noted, had never disciplined Missy, and had often giggled softly upon seeing her daughter lying across her grandmother’s lap—“now you know what I went through when I was growing up.” But when Missy asked when Judy was returning, mother looked at daughter like the girl was out of her mind.
     It wasn’t long after that that Francis left town with a man. And left her daughter stranded. Within a few days, Missy was desperate. She didn’t have a job, couldn’t get one that paid more than 5 cents a day, and didn’t have any money. The solution that presented itself was appalling.
     The owner of the saloon, Harry Bixby, approached her. “You can have your mother’s old job. Be there at 3 PM today.” And then he walked away.
     Missy was horrified. I could NEVER do that. She didn’t go that day, but had nothing to eat. The rent was due and she had no money to pay it. “You give me some money by noon day after tomorrow, first of the month,” her landlady, Nora, had told her, “or you’ll be sleeping in the street that night.”
     Bixby came to Missy again at noon the next day and said, “If you aren’t there today at 3 PM, you’ll never work for me.” Missy was on the verge of tears. Her rent was due the following day, she hadn’t had a meal in two days, and she had no other prospects. At least she could get something to eat at the saloon. Oh, how horrible…horrible… horrible…She dropped her head in her hands and wept.
     But at 3 PM, she was at the saloon. She had never been in such a place before and she was trembling all over. To Missy, the place was filthy. Sawdust covered floor, tables with whiskey and tobacco stains on them, a dirty bar, a picture of a reclining naked woman above a scratched, cracked mirror, smelly spittoons everywhere—it took all of the girl’s will power not to turn and run out the swinging doors.
     Bixby saw her. “Ah. Miss Jacobs. Come on in and have a seat. You’ll do well taking your mother’s place, I’m sure.” He looked her up and down, like a wolf about to devour a lamb.
     Missy sat at the table across from Bixby, her hands in her lap. Her insides were churning, but she took a deep breath to calm herself. I guess I have no choice… ”What…will my job be?”
     Bixby, who was a slimy looking character, mid-40s, balding, small, thin, beady snake eyes, and crooked yellow teeth, smiled wickedly at her. “Well, you’ll help me make money. And make some of your own.”
     “How do I do that?”
     Bixby narrowed his devious eyes at her even more. “How old are you?”
     “Then you’re old enough to know. I’ll give you the outfit you are to wear. You start at 5 each night, when the crowd begins to come in. You mingle, smile, laugh, flirt, try to get the men to drink as much as possible. If they want to pinch you on the rump, you let them pinch you on the rump. If someone wants you to sit in his lap, you sit in his lap. If one of them wants to take you upstairs, you go upstairs. Charge him $5 for that. 25 cents of it will be yours, plus any tips he might give you. A quarter dollar is a good tip; doubles your pay. Try to keep the sessions down to 30 minutes.” He shrugged. “The more tricks you turn, the more money you make.”
     Missy, who’d never been “pinched on the rump” by anybody before, was about to scream, but she contained herself. “Tricks?”
     “Yeah. You get a guy into bed. That’s your main job. We close at about 3 or 4 AM, or when the last patron leaves.” He smiled, a wicked, sickening smile. “As good looking as you are, girl, you could easily make $5-10 a night. More if you do a good job and get some nice tips. Your mother did pretty well, but not as good as you can do. I think $4.50 was her best night.” The man was a first class cheat, but Missy didn’t know that. Then Bixby smiled as depraved a smile as Missy had ever seen on a human face. “Of course, I’ll need to find out, personally, if you’re…worthy…of working for me. We’ll do that in just a few minutes.”
     Missy stared at him. She understood perfectly what he meant. This is horrible…horrible…I can’t do this…I don’t care how much money I make…Missy had never been with a man before. She knew what her mother had been doing, of course, but Missy never intended to follow her into this profession. It never crossed her mind. But desperation…
     I won’t do it…She stood up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bixby, I’d rather die than do what you suggest.” And she meant it. She turned and walked out of the saloon.
     “Don’t come back to me begging for a job,” Bixby called after her. “You won’t get one.”
     Missy ran all the way back to the boarding house, tears streaming down her cheeks.

     She was met at the door by her landlady, Nora. “Do you have the rent?”
     “No,” Missy said meekly.
     Nora, who was almost as big as the side of a huge barn, said, “Noon tomorrow.” Then waddled away.
     Missy watched her. What am I going to do?…

     She was saved, almost at the last moment. Benton Crawford was a local merchant who knew Missy—well, everybody did, everybody knew everybody else in small towns—and he knew her situation. Before noon the next day, he came to Missy and invited her home to stay with him and his wife.
     “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Missy said. “That would be imposing…I…couldn’t, I just couldn’t.”
     Benton smiled compassionately at her. “Well, if that’s the way you feel. I’m sure the saloon would love to have you. And all the filthy, disgusting men who go in there…”
     Missy lowered her head and cried. “I’ll go with you,” she said, barely above a whisper. And Benton and Bertha Crawford welcomed the helpless girl into their home.
     But not for long because Benton had other plans for her. “There is a boarding school in Chicago I want you to go to, Missy. You can get more schooling, train in some trade, and get a job in a few years. It’s just what you need.”
     Missy’s eyes got wide. “But…Mr. Crawford…how will I pay for it? I have no money.”
     Well, to make a long story short, Crawford had intended to send his daughter to the school, but the girl had died when she was 14. He had already paid the school in advance for his daughter’s education, so he simply sent Missy to take her place. “Bertha and I want to do this for you, Missy. Please let us. It would make us both so happy to see you become what we know you can become.”
     Missy’s tender heart gushed forth the tears. And she went to Chicago.

     And she did very well. Head of her class. And she learned some etiquette that she had never learned at home—couldn’t have learned at home. It was a girl’s boarding school, of course, and she was as well-received and well-loved there as she had been everywhere she had gone. She met a few men, but they weren’t important in her life yet. She felt an obligation to Benton and Bertha Crawford to do as well as she could. And she excelled. She wrote to them twice a month, unfailingly. And she never failed to express her undying love and gratitude for her benefactors. Missy had cold chills thinking about what her life might have become without the Crawfords. I’d probably be working in that saloon now… She could hardly think about Benton and Bertha without tears coming to her eyes.
     The school had a four-year program and Missy was studying elementary education; she wanted to teach children. Her heart ached when she saw the condition of some of the homeless urchins that roamed the streets of Chicago, just trying to survive. She knew a lot of the girls ended up in prostitution. There but for the grace of God and the Crawfords go I…Missy had become devoutly religious. It was one (more?) thing she really thanked her grandmother Judy for—taking her to church, though she often puzzled over some of the things her grandmother said about people; it sounded like gossip to Missy. But she would never be judgmental; I’m sure Grandma Judy knows best. Much of Missy’s goodness was innate, but when she learned about God, she wanted all the more to be good. Her frequent encounters with her grandmother’s paddle convinced her that she was far, far from divine grace—her Grandma Judy was never unfair, not to Missy—and thus the girl’s religion became a source of comfort to her as well as an inspiration to try to better herself morally. Not that she needed much of the latter.
     Then, when she was 19, a letter came from a man named Oscar Morris. He lived in Silver Creek, Montana Territory—where her grandmother Judy lived—and the school needed another teacher. He knew about Missy from Judy, and offered the girl the teaching job. Missy would probably not have taken it, for two reasons. One, she hadn’t finished school yet, and two, she wanted to go back to Kansas and be with the Crawfords and hopefully find a teaching job there. Or at least in a town relatively close by. But in Oscar Morris’s letter, he said that grandmother Judy was not in good health. Her mind was wandering and she was doing some dangerous things—like leaving the fire in the stove burning when she left her house. Morris believed the situation would be perfect for Missy—she could have the teaching job and look after her grandmother as well. Missy had to do it, of course. She would have gone to take care of Grandma Judy even without the job offer. She tried to teach me when my mother wouldn’t…I’ve got to go take care of her, I’m all she’s got…Missy hadn’t heard from her mother since the latter had run off with a man, and she never expected to. And as stuffy and sadistic as Judy could be, Missy…would never think evil of her. Or anyone else, for that matter.
     So, she wrote the Crawfords and explained. Of course, they gave her 100% support—and even sent her the money for the train ticket to Montana. Missy had a little money of her own; the school gave the girls an allowance, and Missy gave much of it to the children she saw in the city. But she had enough for a train ticket to Kansas, so she went and spent a few days with the Crawfords. It was a tearful reunion, and then a tearful departure a few days later.
     Missy Jacobs was on her way to her new life.

Chapter Four—More Bad

     Sert Oldham was feeling good, not just because he was free. He had finished the bottle of whiskey he had found at Earl and Barb’s Trading Post, so that lifted his spirits, too—no pun intended. Carver City had been north of the Grand Buttes Prison, but at the trading post crossroad, he had gone west. He passed a couple of ranch houses along the way; at one of them a dog came running out, barking. Oldham said, “Aw, shut up,” pulled his gun and shot the dog. A little farther on, in order to sight in his rifle, he stopped and shot four cows that were about 200 yards away in a pasture. When the owner of the cattle took a shot at him, the outlaw fired back and hit the man; he didn’t know if he killed the fellow or not, but he didn’t care. “This is a good rifle, can’t wait to use it on Wayne and Foster.”
    Because that’s where he was headed. He had to travel about 100 miles to a place called Ronan. He didn’t know, for sure, that Judge Wayne and Marshal Foster were still there. But Sert intended to find out. And if they weren’t there, but were still alive, he was going to find them.

     For the most part, he avoided towns along the way. He wasn’t quite sure why, he was a free man so the law couldn’t arrest him. Well, they could have arrested him for the three murders at Earl and Barb’s Trading Post, but he doubted that would ever be discovered; the fire should have covered everything up. But, he wasn’t ready to socialize yet, so except for a couple of nights when he stopped at a saloon to drink, he stayed away from humans. Money was part of the reason. I’ll need to get some more money sometime; gotta figger out how to do that. Not sure I want to try a bank again. Maybe a stage? Hmm…I’ll toss that around some…First things first. Kill the judge and the marshal, then maybe hightail it out of the territory and disappear somewhere else. Never been to Californy…lots of money there…

     Oldham arrived in Ronan three days later. The town was pretty much the way he remembered it, though it was a little larger and the flora had grown up some. He located the hotel and got a room. Then a meal at the local diner. Then Frankie’s Saloon.
     He saw several faces that he remembered, but no one recognized him. He was 15 years older, of course, and the rough prison years had aged him beyond his years. Plus he had a full beard that he hadn’t had before, and longer hair, so it would have surprised him if anyone had identified him.
     He needed some information, but he needed to get it surreptitiously. As he was leaning up against the bar of the saloon drinking a glass of beer, he struck up a conversation with the fellow next to him.
     “How’s the ranchin’ been around here the past few years? I’ve been down to Texas working, but man, that heat down there is a bear. Thought I’d come back up here and get cooled off.”
     The fellow chuckled. “Yeah. I’ve heard that Texas is hotter’n the basement o’ hell. But then, it can get awful cold up here in the winter.”
     “I know, but I’ve been up here before. I can handle the cold better’n the heat. Things goin’ pretty good?”
     “Not bad. Beef prices have been pretty stable. And they’ve discovered some silver in the mountains near here so that’s helped some, too.” He looked at Oldham. “You lookin’ for work?”
     Oldham took a sip of his beer and shook his head. “Not at the moment. I sold some cattle in Texas so I’m set up fer awhile. Might try t’ find some land around here. I’ve also done some law work before, too, but I don’t think I want to get back into that.” He grinned. “Some of them outlaws is awful ornery.”
     The other man laughed. “Yeah, they can be. I don’t think I’d want to be a lawman myself.”
     “That reminds me,” Oldham said, “I knew a marshal named Dan Foster when I was up here before. Good man.” Dead man, which is “good”…Oldham chuckled inwardly. “Also knew a judge. Martin Wayne. Either of ‘em still around?”
     “Foster’s not. He moved over to Silver Creek a few years back to be marshal, but a horse throwed him a couple of months ago and broke his neck. Never figgered him to go that way. He was tough and a good lawman. For him to die like that…” The man shook his head sadly. “Brother’s on his way up here to take his place, I think.”
     Oldham was disgusted. Shoot. I wanted to get Foster myself…maybe I’ll take out the brother…yeah, that’s what I’ll do…”Well, that’s too bad about Foster. What about the judge?”
     “He’s alive and well and still sendin’ outlaws to the hoosegow, them that he don’t string up. He’s rough, but he’s fair.”
     “Yeah,” Oldham said, desperately trying to hold in his temper. “I’d like to see ‘im again. He give me some good advice once. Reckon where I could find him?”
     “Got a place about three miles outta town,” the man told him. “Nice, white colonial house. You go west, you cain’t miss it. He travels a lot, o’ course, but you might catch him at home.”
     The killer smiled inwardly. Got ‘im. “Thanks. I’ll try and do that.”
     “Welcome.” The man looked at him. “How long has it been since you’ve been here? I don’t recall you.”
     Oldham smiled again and held out his hand. “Justin Barber. I’ve been gone over a decade.”
     The man took his hand and shook it. “B. J. Taylor. Nice to meet you. Don’t remember you, but that was quite awhile ago.”
     Oldham felt he might be treading on thin ice now, so he decided it was time to go. He had the information he needed. “Yeah, it was. Anyway, I gotta run. Nice meeting you. I’m sure we’ll meet up again some time.”
     “Yeah. I’m sure we will. Nice talkin’ to you. And good luck.”
     “’Preciate it.” Oldham finished his beer and left the saloon. Satisfied. ‘cept I wish Foster were still alive…well, the judge will have to do…until I can find Foster’s brother, that is…
     Sert Oldham was smart enough—and patient enough—not to just bust into the judge’s house and start shooting. He rode out to find the house; that wasn’t hard. It was set back from the road about a quarter mile, amongst a lovely copse of pine and oak trees. There was a barn and corral behind and to the right. There was also another, smaller, building that looked like it might be a bunkhouse, but Sert wasn’t sure. But all this suited him perfectly; plenty of places to spy from. And he took advantage of it. He spent much of the following day in the woods outside the Wayne home. Oldham’s blood was boiling as he looked over the mansion. He’s gotten rich by throwin’ decent people into prison. Decent people like me….
     The judge apparently lived alone, though he had someone to take care of his animals. Both evenings, Oldham saw the judge ride up around dusk in a covered carriage; his hostler led the horses and carriage into the barn while the judge entered the house. If there were any servants inside, Oldham didn’t see them. His blood raged the first time he saw Judge Wayne. He was 15 years older now, probably in his late 60s. His hair was white, but thinning, and he had a mustache and goatee. Sert didn’t really care about that; he was just glad the judge was still alive.
     He needed to find out if anyone—a servant—was in the house. So, after seeing the judge leave one morning, he waited an hour and then went up to the door and knocked. Sure enough, it was opened by a short, stout woman—obviously a maid.
     Oldham smiled his most charming smile. “Mrs. Philips?”
     “No, there is no Mrs. Philips here. This is Judge Martin Wayne’s home. May I help you?”
     Oldham feigned surprised. “Oh. I must have the wrong house. I’m looking for a Frank Philips. I was told in town that he lived out in this direction. I thought it was this house. I’m terribly sorry to disturb you. Do you by any chance know where the Philips’ live?”
     The lady thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think I know them. I’m sorry, I can’t help.”
     “Well, I’ll find them.” Oldham tipped his hat and smiled. “Again, I apologize for disturbing you. Have a nice day.” He left, thoughtful. Gonna have to keep an eye on that outbuildin’ and see if anybody goes there at night.
     Nobody did, except the stable man, which told Sert that the maid probably slept indoors. And there might be more servants.
     Oldham waited one more day and night; got to be careful. I’ve waited 15 years so I can wait another day or two…After that third day of scouting, he decided to act the next night. The only thing that concerned him were those inside servants, but he figured that, after three days, he knew all he was going to know. Time to act.
     The next night, Oldham was ready. Just like he had done with Earl and Barb’s Trading Post, he intended to burn the place down once he killed the judge. So he brought a couple of cans of kerosene with him. He waited in the woods until dark. He knew where the judge slept, or at least thought he did; he had seen the light in an upstairs room go on and then off. He assumed that was the judge’s room. If he was wrong…well, he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. If he burned the house down, chances are more people than the judge would be killed anyway. That didn’t bother Sert in the least.
     He waited until well after midnight. The light in the upstairs room had, once again, come on after dark and gone out a little while later. Oldham took both cans of kerosene and crept up to the back door; he was thankful, and a bit surprised, that he didn’t have a dog or two to deal with. The back door wasn’t locked—Oldham smiled. He sure is makin’ this easy…he slipped inside. He was in the kitchen. Moving quietly further into the house, he came into a large living room. He set one of the kerosene cans down; I’ll set one of the fires in here. The stairway led from the living room up to the second floor. Taking the second can of kerosene, Oldham slowly crept up the stairs. At the top, he stopped and listened. He heard nothing but a light snore. He was at the end of a long hallway. There were three doors on the right, and three on the left. All of the doors were open. Oldham moved softly; the floor was carpeted and that helped, too. He was sure he knew which room the judge was in—the third room on the right. As he passed each door, he peeked in; they were all bedrooms, but nobody was in any of them. There must be more bedrooms downstairs…That was entirely possible; the house was large.
     Oldham paused at the judge’s bedroom door. And smiled. Sure enough, Judge Martin Wayne was sleeping like a baby in a large canopied bed. Well, not for long
     The outlaw entered the room and quietly closed the door. He walked over to a table next to the bed and lit the lamp. The room brightened. The judge didn’t wake up. Oldham pulled a chair over to the side of the bed and sat down. Then he reached over and poked Wayne several times until the judge woke up.
     Wayne was groggy, but he sharpened quickly when he saw the strange man sitting next to his bed. Propping himself up on his elbows, the judge asked, “Who, sir, are you, and what is the meaning of this intrusion into my bedroom?”
     The outlaw smiled. “Take a close look, judge. Don’t you recognize me?”
     Wayne narrowed his eyes, looking at Sert, thinking back. The light dawned, and he said, with a croak in his voice, “Sert Oldham.”
     “Good, good,” Oldham replied. “I’m glad I made such an impression on you. I told you I’d come back. You ruined 15 years of my life, judge, now I’m gonna ruin the rest of yours. Which ain’t gonna be very long.”
     Judge Wayne quickly reached under his pillow, but Oldham was ready for that. He knocked the gun out of the judge’s hand. “Uh uh, judge, none o’ that. You had your day. And passed sentence on me. Now, I’m going to pass sentence on you.” He paused. And smiled again, an evil, wicked, insane smile. “Death.”
     Judge Wayne stirred up his courage. “Oldham, you’re a free man. You can do whatever you want. Don’t do this. Go. Make a life for yourself. You’ll get caught again if you continue this foolish life of crime and iniquity. Next time, it will might be a rope, not just a prison sentence. Don’t ruin it, man.”
     Oldham just shook his head. “Sorry, judge. Once an outlaw, always an outlaw. You cost me 15 years of my life. And you’ve got to pay. I’m only sorry that scum of a lawman, Dan Foster, ain’t still alive. I’d like to take him out, too.”
     The judge shook his head. “You’ll not get away with this, Oldham. You know that.”
     “Well, you’ll never find out, judge, that’s for sure.” He leaned over and hit Wayne hard, stunning him. While the judge was in a daze, Sert quickly tied his wrists and ankles to the bedposts, and stuffed a gag in his mouth. Wayne struggled, but he was bound tightly.
     “Time for you t’ head fer hell, judge,” Oldham said. “And I’ll give you an advance taste of what it’s goin’ to be like.” He threw his head back and laughed. Picking up the can of kerosene, he poured about half of it up and down the judge’s body. Wayne’s eyes got huge and he tried to cry out, but the gag prevented it. Sert then scattered the rest of the kerosene around the room, the last bit of it leaving a trail from the door to the bed. He smiled. Perfect.
     Martin Wayne had a horrified expression on his face, sheer panic in his eyes. Oldham stood at the door and smiled. “Revenge is sweet, judge….so sweet. I’ll see you in hell, though I don’t plan on bein’ there for a long time….” He struck a match and tossed it at his feet.
     The kerosene immediately burst into flames and the trail to the bed lit up quickly. The fire climbed the side of the bed, up to where the judge lay…and then the poor man burst into flames from the kerosene that Oldham had poured onto him. Sert watched the flaming body writhe in pain and agony. Then the flames became very hot as the rest of the room caught fire from the kerosene that the outlaw had spread around. Satisfied, Sert ran down the hall, and down the stairs. He picked up the other can of kerosene and began sloshing it around. Smoke was beginning to creep down to the first floor. Oldham heard a door open behind him; the lady he had met at the door two days previous stood there in her nightgown.
     “What…?” she asked. It was her last word. Oldham drew his gun and shot her. He regretted doing that almost immediately, for he feared someone—the hostler—might hear. Well, I’ll have to take care of that…Oldham went to the front door, opened it, struck a match, and tossed it inside. The kerosene once again burst into flames. The house would be totally ablaze before anything could be done to save it. The bodies would be burned beyond recognition.
     The stable man…Oldham ran to the bunkhouse and opened it. Sure enough, there was a man sleeping in there. Apparently, the gunshot hadn’t awoken him. Sert thought for a moment. Better not take any chances…He pulled his gun and shot the man in the head. Then, picking up the dead man, he carried him around back and into the kitchen. The flames weren’t there yet, but it wouldn’t be long. The smoke was getting thicker. Oldham held his breath, dumped the body on the kitchen floor, and ran outside. He didn’t stop running—and laughing—until he came to his horses about a half mile away.
     He looked back. The night sky was bright with the flames of the burning house.
     Yes…revenge is sweet….

     Oldham continued on his way. He stopped a couple of days later at a town called Moose Park. He went into the saloon to get a drink. He liked what he heard.
     A couple of old timers at the bar:
     “Hey, Fritz, did you hear about old Judge Wayne’s house a-gettin’ burned down t’other night?
     “Naw! Yore kiddin’.”
     “Nope. Burned the judge, his maid, and his stable man to a fried tater.”
     “Wow. That’s too bad. Ol’ Judge Wayne was a good’un. Give ‘em a fair trial and hang ‘em. Way it oughta be. Was it arson?”
     “They don’t think so. Kinda like Earl and Barb’s place not long ago. Been a dry summer, you know. Lots of fires around.”
     “Yeah. Gotta be kereful. You goin’ to Brant’s auction next week…?”
     Sert lost interest at that point. He smiled. Nobody suspects nuthin’. Sert, ol’ boy, you got it made. Now, find some money…lots of money…Another smile….

     Oldham wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do. He had thought about California, but he would need some money if he was going that far. He didn’t have much left of the $45 he had confiscated from the trading post. Hmmm…gonna have to work on that…can’t do a bank…As he was ruminating on that problem he drew near a town called Silver Creek, and saw something that made him stop and stare. Well, I do de-clare…isn’t that somethin’…Sert, old boy, this is your lucky day…

Chapter Five—More Ugly

     After de-heading the snake and de-branching the tree, I got a little more proof of my prowess with a gun a couple of nights later. I still didn’t know who I was. My head still hurt, but not as badly. I was having more visions and flashes—faces, towns, even a couple of names—Brent Coleman and Jerry Conley, but I didn’t think either of them was my name. I believed that when I did remember my name, I’d know it. But then, I wasn’t sure. I’d never had amnesia before, or if I had, I was currently forgetting it. Like I had forgotten everything else.
     But anyway, I hadn’t come to a town yet, so I was still camping out. I was in some forested foothills and bedded down for the night. It was chilly and I bundled up in my blanket, using my saddle for a pillow. I had a good night’s sleep.
     When I woke up the next morning, it was barely after dawn. I could sense something wasn’t right. I still had my eyes closed, so I wasn’t sure of what it was, but I just…felt…that there was something amiss. Sure enough, when I opened my eyes, I spotted three men—they were standing about 10 feet away from me, and two of them were pointing guns at me. Grungy-looking fellows, whose fleas probably had lice. The two with guns were older, mid-30s; the other fellow was young, maybe early 20s. He appeared a little scared. But the two gunmen looked tough; they were sneering and if they were frightened by my prone position, they didn’t show it.
     “Told ya he was playin’ possum, Pete,” the fellow on the right said. “Should have just plugged him, grabbed his horse, and gone on.”
     “Nah, no sense in killin’ a feller that ain’t askin’ for it. And he ain’t asked for it yet.” “Pete” appeared to be in charge. He then spoke to me. “All we want is yore horse, mister, then we’ll leave ye be. Lost one of ours a mile or so back, so we need one. Give ‘im up easy and we’ll light a shuck outta here.”
     For some reason, I didn’t believe this guy. I wasn’t staring at the salt of the earth here, ok? That he wanted my horse, I had no doubt. That part I believed. It was the “leave ye be” part of it that had me suspicious. I didn’t know how I knew it, but I just did. They’d take my horse and shoot me. Probably the only reason they hadn’t done it yet was that they couldn’t find Horse. I didn’t picket him, I let him roam free and just…knew…that he’d be back in the morning. It had happened the previous night and I was sure it would happen again this time.
     “Howdy, fellers,” I said, all cheerful like. “Would you like some breakfast? I’ve got some rattlesnake meat that would be just up your alley.”
     More sneers. “Funny fellow,” Pete said. “No, I’ve already told you, we want your horse. Where is he? We can’t find him.”
     I shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s around. He’ll come when I whistle.”
     “Then whistle,” Pete said, “or else.” He cocked his pistol and pointed it directly at me.
     I smiled. “Well, now, Pete, if you pull that trigger, I won’t be able to whistle, will I? And he won’t come for your whistle, I guarantee. So why don’t you fellows put up those guns and we’ll try to be civil about this.”
     Pete grinned, evilly. “Oh, I don’t intend to kill you, mister. I’ll just shoot one of your knees, and then the other…and then something else…until you finally get that horse here…”
     Well, shucks, he was smarter than he looked. So I was going to have to do the world a favor and initiate Plan B.
     I was still lying on my back, under the covers. For…some reason…I slept with my gun right next to me. Right next to my right hand. Which meant that, as of this moment, my hand was wrapped around the butt of the gun. I nodded at Pete and said, “Well, I guess you give me no choice…” I fired the gun three times in less than a second, and there were three dead men in front of me less than a second later.
     I frowned. My first thought was, now I’ve got three holes in my blanket…but then, I wondered why that was my first thought. I had just dispatched three human beings, and I really didn’t feel terribly bad about it. And the three shots had been right where I wanted them to go—into three hearts. It had been too easy, way too easy.
     I sat up and idly ejected the spent cartridges and reloaded my gun. I was thinking, and thinking hard. Who am I? Am I some kind of killer? I don’t have very much remorse over what I just did. Am I a cold-blooded outlaw? I didn’t think so, because I felt like I had a conscience. My head started hurting again, and I closed my eyes. Thinking was still an activity my brain revolted against. But then, perhaps it always had.
     I glanced up quickly when I heard something just outside my camp, which was surrounded by bushes and trees. “Hello. Don’t shoot, we’re coming in,” a male voice said.
     “All right, but come in slow and make sure your hands are where I can see them.”
     “We’re friendly,” the voice said, and then three men appeared, men who were obviously no threat. I…knew that, too.
     But it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. They were older men, and two of them were office types. The third man looked like a cowboy, but his honest, open face spoke of no danger. They were looking at me strangely. “You got all three of them by yourself?”
     I still had my gun in my hand, but had dropped it by my side. “Let’s start from the beginning,” I replied. “Who are you, and do you know these dearly departed sons of fat, ugly whores?”
     The man who had done the speaking had a belly that was too big, white hair with a long, flowing white mustache, and a pink face that told me he didn’t get outside any more than he could help it. The man next to him was taller, stout, but gray-haired, square-jawed, and competent looking. For an office man. The other man, mid-30s perhaps, was dressed in traditional cowboy garb—dark brown vest, blue shirt, Levi’s, boots, black flat-crowned hat with a gun at his hip. Again, no real apparent threats.
     Chubby White Hair nodded and spoke. “My name is Bill Frazier”—I liked Chubby White Hair better—“and this is Frank Hester”—Square Jaw—“and Toby Ryan”—Cowboy Garb. “We were chasing these ‘sons of fat, ugly whores,’ as you call them, because they recently robbed the bank down in Grant City. You know where that is?”
     I had no clue and said so.
     “Well, it’s about 50 miles south of here. They hit the bank a couple of days ago, killed the marshal and his deputy, and headed this way. Frank, Toby, and I came after them. It looks like you got to them first.”
     “Well, they actually got to me.” I told them the story, and I had three sets of eyes narrow at me. But before they could ask any more questions, I had one. “Excuse me, but you don’t strike me as the typical western posse. These men”—motioning to the recently deceased—“were pretty dangerous. What did you intend to do when you caught them?”
     Frazier glanced at Toby Ryan. “Toby is pretty good with a gun. Frank and I can shoot.” He shrugged. “We were the only three we could get at the moment. We had to move quickly to catch them.” Then, he asked again, “You got all three of them by yourself?”
     “Do you see anybody else around here?”
     “No. Do you mind if I ask your name?”
     I was hoping you could tell me…I didn’t know what to say, but before I could speak, Toby Ryan said, “I know who he is. I recognize his description. Don’t you, Frank?”
     My hopes soared. Hester examined me closely. “No, I don’t think I do, Toby, but I’ve probably heard of him. There aren’t many men who could have done what he did.”
     “Yeah,” Ryan said. “He’s Abe Ackroyd. Arizona Ranger, though I’m not sure what he’s doing up here.”
     Abe Ackroyd? Well, if that was my name, I was going to find my father and mother and shoot both of them. That’s a terrible name. It also didn’t ring a single bell in my head, so I sincerely doubted—and hoped—that I went by some other designation. But, since I couldn’t answer the question about who I really was, I’d play along.
     “Yeah, well, I took some time off. I have a brother who owns a ranch north of here and I wanted to see him. In fact, if I liked it enough, I was going to stay.” I made a face. “A fellow could get hurt being a lawman.”
     They all laughed. Frazier said, “Well, we sure are happy to meet you, Ranger Ackroyd.” I hope they don’t ask to see my badge…”And these fellows”—the dead men—“sure walked into a hornet’s nest unbeknownst. We are beholden to you.”
     “I was glad to help, though, frankly, my first concern was my own hide. Who are these armadillos?”
     “Pete, Tank, and Freddy Carstairs. Two-bit criminals up here. Ever heard of them?”
     A lightening bolt through my head. Yeah, I’ve heard of them, but I don’t know where, when, why, who, what, how much, or how many. My head started spinning, and it took me a moment to respond. I answered, “No, I don’t know them.” At least, I hoped I didn’t. Hadn’t. “They told me that they had lost one of their horses and wanted mine. Theirs are probably around somewhere.”
     Frazier nodded. “We’ll find them. Can’t be far. And we’ll load them up and take them back to Grant City.” He hesitated. “There’s a reward out for these men. $1500. It’s yours. Come to Grant City and we’ll see that you get it.”
     I shook my head. “I can’t do it. You know that Rangers can’t take reward money.”
     “But you said you were taking some time off.”
     I smiled at him. “Once a Ranger, always a Ranger, I guess.” You’re an idiot, man. Go down there and get that money. “Besides, my brother…Jefferson…” I smiled at my own joke. Abe. Jefferson. Get it? You don’t? Dummy… ”is expecting me any day.”
     “Well, the money’s yours if you want it.”
     I waved him off. “Maybe I’ll send you a wire when I get to Jeff’s place. I don’t deny I could use the money, and technically, you’re right, I’m not on duty. I don’t want to backtrack to Grant City, though.”
     “Just let us know where to send it…”
     We yada’d a little longer while Ryan looked for the Carstairs’ horses. Once he found them, the three bodies were loaded up onto the two remaining mounts, the three Grant City men bid their adieus, and headed back home.
     I stood there with a frown on my face, watching them ride off. Abe Ackroyd? Arizona Ranger? I shook my head. I didn’t think so. For two reasons. Number one, as I said, I thought I would recognize my name when I heard it. And two, I had had no flashbacks of the desert; everything was mountains or prairie. That wasn’t conclusive, but I thought it was pretty suggestive. I sighed, annoyed. This amnesia was frustrating, to say the least.

     I kept riding and about noon came to a town named Ronan. It looked like 1,000 other western ranching towns. One main dusty street, though this one had a curve in it. False-fronted wooden buildings, some residences neatly lined up on a couple of adjacent streets. What I wanted to find was a barber shop so I could have a nice, warm bath, and then a general store to pick up some supplies. I thought about visiting the local doctor and asking him about this amnesia, but I decided against that. Give it a few days and see how it goes; no sense in paying a sawbones if it wasn’t necessary.
     Everything went well for awhile. I even found a diner to eat at. I felt good after my bath; well, my head was still hurting and my eyes blurred occasionally, but it was better than it had been. Hopefully, it would all be gone before long and my memory would return.
     I kept having visions of people and places; one face especially continued to come into my mind. A man, early middle-aged, nice-looking gent, but western, competent, intelligent. I had no idea who he was, of course, but I had a suspicion he was either a family member or close friend. I had an image of an older man and woman, too; I was sure it was my folks. But nothing I could pin down. Every time I thought too hard my head ached so I had to will myself to relax.
     I considered spending the night at the local hotel, but I didn’t like the looks of the place and I wasn’t in the mood to be around people. I was afraid somebody might ask me a question I couldn’t answer, like “what’s your name?” I wasn’t about to tell anybody my name was Abe Ackroyd. If I found out that it was, I was going to change it.
     So, my last stop was at the general store to pick up a few provisions. That didn’t take long, and when I came outside, I saw a man standing by Horse, giving him a good once-over. The fellow was short, wiry, with a long face and buck teeth. He looked like he thought he was tough and had a surly expression on his face.
     “Is this your horse?” he asked when he saw me approach.
     “Sure is,” I told him.
     “Nice horse. I’ll give you $10 for him.”
     I thought he was kidding, of course. “No, I’ve got to have at least $11.”
     He looked thoughtful. “Ok, I guess I can go that high.” And he started to pull out his wallet.
     I stared at him, puzzled. “I was joking. I assumed you were, too.”
     “I never kid, mister.” He removed $11 from his billfold and stuck it out to me. “Here you go.”
     I just shook my head in disbelief. “Buddy, you must be playin’ with a deck of 51 cards. I’m not about to sell you my horse for $11. This horse is worth at least $400, and I wouldn’t sell him for even that much.” Horse was a very good animal and I knew it. $11 wasn’t enough to buy a three-legged nag. This squirt had a screw loose somewhere.
     But he was getting hot. “Listen, I made you a good offer and even agreed to your price. Now, you take this money and scram, and be thankful that you got this much.”
     I glanced around to see if anybody was watching. There were a few people who had stopped to listen. I said to one of them, “Is this guy for real?”
     He slowly nodded his head. “Don’t you know who you are dealing with, mister?”
     “No, I have no idea who this runt is.”
     The man winced and looked grave. “That’s Tiny Flynn. If I was you, I’d take the $11 and start walking.”
     I closed my eyes as another lightening bolt seared through my head. Tiny Flynn…Tiny Flynn…the name rang a bell somewhere, but again, I couldn’t dig it out. “Well, I don’t care if he’s Napoleon Bonaparte, he isn’t getting my horse.” I looked back at Flynn. “Go crawl back into your hole, Flynn, and come back out when you grow a few more inches.”
     I heard a gasp behind me from someone in the crowd, and Tiny Flynn’s eyes blazed. “Fella, I’ll forget you said that, but it’s going to cost you your horse.” He jammed the $11 into his shirt pocket. “Now get lost while me and this horse get acquainted.” He grabbed Horse’s saddle horn in preparation for mounting him. Horse, whinnied and started to move away; he was my horse, he knew it, and he wasn’t about to let anybody get on him without my assent. And I wasn’t going to give it.
     I grabbed Tiny by the waist and tossed him about 10 feet out into the street. More gasps and I heard some footfalls as if people were running away. I didn’t care. Angrily, I said to Flynn, “Listen, you two-bit, pea-brained thief. You can’t have my horse. What kind of idiot are you to think I’d sell a horse like this for $11? You’re out of whatever little mind you’ve got.”
     He stood up slowly, obviously doing a slow burn. He was wearing a gun, tied down, and low. I told you he looked like he thought he was tough. He spoke low and menacingly. “Mister, nobody does that to Tiny Flynn. Nobody. You just paid your ticket to Boot Hill. I made you a fair offer and you insulted me. You’re wearing a gun. Get ready to use it.” He slowly backed up into the middle of the street.
     I sighed and shook my head. The man whom I had spoken with earlier said to me, “Mister, you should have given him your horse. Ain’t nobody ever outdrawn Tiny Flynn. Nobody’ll even try any more. Say your prayers ‘cause you ain’t gonna be breathin’ much longer.” I gave him a disgusted look. He was about as eloquent as a Yankee soldier. I frowned, thoughtful. What have I got against Yankee soldiers?…I didn’t know at the moment, and would have to sort it out later. If there was a “later” in my life…
     I wasn’t particularly scared, but I didn’t especially like what I had just heard. I knew I was pretty good with a gun—a certain snake in the road would probably agree with that assessment—but shooting straight and drawing fast are two different things. But there was nothing for it now. I’d find out how good I was, and if I wasn’t good enough, I’d die never even knowing who I was. What a way to go. Well, the devil probably knew my name and could tell me.
     I narrowed my eyes and looked back at Tiny Flynn. He was standing in the middle of the street. I could see people going inside buildings to escape the possibility of being hit by a stray bullet. I glanced back at the man who had spoken to me. “Don’t you people have a sheriff or a marshal in this town?”
     “As scared of Tiny as the rest of us.”
     I grunted and shook my head again. “What a town.” Well, there was nothing for it, so I walked out to the middle of the street, and stood about 40 feet from Flynn.
     He smiled at me. A wicked, smug smile. “Take a look around you, saddle tramp. It will be the last time you’ll ever see the sky, the clouds, a town. Feel the wind…I’ll let you enjoy it for a few more seconds. Think a nice thought ‘cause it will be your last one.”
     I wasn’t especially listening to him. I was watching his hand. And when he moved, I did.
     Tiny got his gun out of his holster, but he never put it into play. I hit him dead-center, right in the heart. His eyes got huge and he lifted up onto his toes. Then with a soft groan, his eyelids fluttered and he fell face first to the ground. I hope his last thought had been a nice one.
     I watched him a couple of seconds just to make sure he didn’t move, then walked over to him. With a foot, I rolled him over onto his back. Yep, he was dead. I holstered my gun, and glanced around town. People were starting to come out of the buildings, and every one of them had an amazed expression on his or her face. I was kind of shocked myself, but I wasn’t going to show it.
     I turned on my heel, and walked over to Horse. I had laid my new purchases on the ground, so I picked them up and stuffed them into a saddlebag. I heard a soft voice behind me. “Who are you?”
     I wanted to know the answer to that question, too. “Somebody who isn’t going to sell his horse for $11,” I replied without looking back, though I was pretty sure that wasn’t my name. I started to mount Horse, but stopped because I saw a pretty lady staring at me. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a ring, so I went over and kissed her full on the lips, daring anybody to try and stop me. I got a blush and a smile in return, then climbed on Horse’s back, and said, “You folks have a nice day.” I tugged on the reins and Horse took off down the street at a slow trot. Both sidewalks were lined with people glaring at me. I felt like a one man parade.
     The last thing I heard before I was completely out of town was, “Thanks, stranger…” I just stuck a hand up and waved.
     Well, I’m good with a gun and I’m fast with it. What does that make me?
     I guess it makes me a man who’s good with a gun and fast with it…and can’t remember his name…I smiled…and who likes kissing pretty ladies…I wonder if I would have done that if I had been in my right mind….I smiled bigger…well, if not, I hope I stay like this forever….

     I spent a couple more nights on the trail, still unable to jumble all the pieces together, though I kept seeing faces, places, and remembering names. Burriss… Castleton… Leadville…Johnny Mexico…Dan Foster…that last name caused me to frown because I felt like I knew him very well. But still, the harder I thought, the more my head hurt. I just had to let it come naturally, as difficult and as frustrating as it was.
     The next day, I continued to ride in a northwesterly direction and was getting into some rougher terrain. The surrounding hills and dales were covered with a lot of foliage and the wind was from the north and thus a little chilly. The fact that the day was overcast didn’t help. I put on my coat and an hour or so before noon thought I’d stop, make some coffee, and munch on some jerky. Horse stopped before I did and nickered softly. I knew he had smelled something, but I didn’t know what it was.
     I pushed him on a few yards farther towards a wide bend in the rode, and heard another horse nicker. It sounded like it was coming from the woods to my right, so I dismounted and investigated. Sure enough, about 20 yards in, I spotted two horses. I walked over to them cautiously and just beyond I saw something that absolutely, positively stunned me. Astounded me so completely that I couldn’t move….

Chapter Six—More Good

     Missy moved to Silver Creek, Montana Territory. And she adapted well. She started teaching almost immediately, and the children, faster than immediately, fell in love with her. Even though Missy was still quiet and somewhat reserved, she began to meet people—parents of the children, people at church, various merchants around town; she even joined a ladies’ club and that helped, too. She took special interest in some of the widows in town. As often as she could, she would go visit them, bring some cheer into their lives, bake them a cake, or some soup if they were ill. “The queen of the angels,” Winifred Acton called her, and nearly everyone agreed. As noted earlier in the story, some people thought she really was an angel.
     Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for Missy to draw the attention of the resident single male population of Silver Creek. Her life—with work, church, widows, and her own grandmother’s problems (more on that in a moment)—was pretty crowded. So it wasn’t easy for her to find time for the opposite sex. But there were occasions. During the good weather months (mostly late spring to early autumn), Silver Creek held a town dance. Missy always went and never lacked for dance partners, though most of them were married. On occasion, she would go to dinner with someone. But she never stayed out late. Except for the dance night—when she didn’t come home until 11—she was always home by 9. She felt she owed that to Grandma Judy. Men just weren’t an integral part of her life yet.
     Because Judy was not well. Physically, she seemed fine, but her mind did wander. She occasionally called Missy “Francis,” and asked her about “that worthless husband of yours.” Other times she was downright mean and asked Missy “when are you going to get married and move out?” (Missy lived with her grandmother, something Judy had insisted upon when Missy arrived. Missy wanted to anyway, feeling she needed to be with her grandmother as much as possible.) Sometimes Judy would break out crying, for no reason. She got lost coming home one time. Most of the time Judy was in her “right mind,” as the doctor called it, but Missy understood that Judy didn’t always think clearly. She asked the doctor about her grandmother’s condition.
     “Senility,” he responded. “It happens to a lot of older people. Some of them get it worse than others.”
     Missy didn’t think Judy was that old; she was in her late 50s. “Will she ever get better?” she asked the doctor.
     Sadly, he shook his head. “I’ve never seen a case where someone did.”
     “So, she’ll get worse?”
     “Probably.” He shrugged. “It may happen slowly, it may happen quickly. Different people grow senile at different paces.”
     “But…will it affect her physically?”
     “Eventually, yes. And it will eventually kill her, if something else doesn’t do it first. But I can’t tell you when.” He smiled and tried to be reassuring. “It could be years. She’s not ready for the grave yet. But,” he continued, “be patient with her. When she is in that condition, she literally doesn’t know what she’s saying or doing.”
     “Will she even know me?”
     “Sometimes. Sometimes she might not. Or she might confuse you with someone else.” Missy remembered that Judy had called her “Francis” a few times. He shrugged again. “There’s really no way of knowing for sure.”
     “Is she…dangerous?”
     “Only to herself. Try not to leave her alone, if you can help it. I know you have to work, but if you can, arrange for some of your grandmother’s friends to be with her when you aren’t there.”
     Missy worried about her grandma, though she tried not to. She prayed fervently about it, but Judy grew increasingly worse as time went on.
     Missy noticed that, when Judy was “right,” she seemed to have mellowed quite a bit from the times she had visited Missy and her mother before. Until she arrived in Silver Creek—at the age of 19—Missy hadn’t seen her grandmother since she was 16, an event mentioned earlier. As noted at that point, on the morning of her departure to Silver Creek, Judy had given Missy a dressing down and paddling that had literally left her granddaughter sore for a week. She had never been warm or loving towards Missy, just a stern disciplinarian. That changed, however, when Missy arrived in Silver Creek to live with her. Judy seemed to accept that Missy was a grown young lady now, and while still not overly affectionate, she did seem to appreciate that her granddaughter was there. And Missy—being Missy—loved her grandmother very much.
     However, during her “senility moods”—as Missy called them—Judy had a tendency on occasion to revert to her cruel, uncaring ways. She would often accuse Missy of things that were beyond ridiculous. “You didn’t get home until 3 AM last night” (Missy had been home all night, sitting with her grandmother till bedtime). “What were you doing riding your horse on the mountain this morning? I told you never to do that” (neither of which were true). The girl would get a chewing out deluxe and a couple of times, a smack on the bottom. But because Missy was…Missy…she never complained and was determined never to be rebellious, troublesome, or quarrelsome, regardless of what it might cost her in pain or distress.
     And because Missy was Missy—“the queen of the angels”—she could never walk through town without drawing a crowd of laughing, smiling, jumping children. And Missy always stopped, laughed, smiled, and…well, she didn’t jump with them, but she took the time to say a sweet word to them all—and she always had a bag of jellybeans in her skirt pocket, enough to go around for all. After a hug for each one, they would run off, and Missy would be kneeling, watching them in their glee, a tear in her eye, a tear for the joy they brought into her life…
     One Friday night in mid-September, Missy, now 21, learned that the widow Walters had come down with a pretty severe chest cough. As always, Missy was concerned, so the next morning, she rose early and cooked some soup to take to the widow. She’ll probably need some work done around the house and outside, too, so Missy put on jeans; the only time she ever wore them was when she worked outside. I am NOT going to wallow around in the dirt in one of my dresses, she giggled. She had some old dresses she could have worn, but the jeans were more comfortable and easier to work in. It was her one concession to “immodesty,” as she considered it.
     About 9 in the morning she was ready to go. The widow Walters lived about three miles outside of Silver Creek. Her husband had died four years earlier, but the widow didn’t want to leave their home. She should move into town so we can keep a closer eye on her…Missy had suggested that to her a few times, but with no success. Well, it’s a nice ride out there. I don’t mind. And it was pretty. A winding road along the creek, next to some near vertical crags, to a small homestead nestled among trees. It was pretty. Missy had thought many times, I hope I can have a place like this some day…
     She put the soup, some cough medicine, and some tools in the back of her and Judy’s wagon, hitched the team, and started off. About a mile from the widow Walters’ place. she saw a man sitting on a horse, in the middle of the road. He was just sitting there, not moving, looking at her.
     Missy stopped the wagon and smiled. “Hello. Are you lost? Is there something I can do for you?”
     And Sert Oldham smiled…Oh, yes, there is DEFINITELY something you can do for me….

Chapter Seven—The Worst Day of Missy’s Life

     Sert Oldham rode slowly over to Missy’s wagon. “Hello, you pretty thing. And just where are you headed?”
     Missy was…Missy. “I’m going to widow Walters’ place. It’s about a mile down the road from here. She’s sick, and I made her some soup. I’m going to clean up around her place, too, I’m sure she can’t do anything for herself right now.” The girl brightened. “Would you like to come and help? I know widow Walters would like to meet you.”
     Oldham smiled. As innocent as a lamb…”Are you a good cook?”
     Missy shrugged. “Well, I can do it. I don’t know that I’m especially good. I cook for my grandma and me every day.”
     Mmm, I need a cook…and she’s so…delicious…”Well, you know something’, I’m just sort of passin’ through, on my way to Californy probably, and I could sure use a cook. Why don’t come go with me? I’ll pay you real well.”
     “Oh, I couldn’t do that. My grandmother needs me. She’s not very well herself.”
     Oldham pulled his gun and pointed it at Missy. “Little lady, coming with me is not a option…”

     Missy was a little surprised, but not alarmed, when she saw the man on his horse in the middle of the road. It was a fairly well traveled road, and it was possible that he was just resting his mount. She stopped and the above conversation ensued. When the man pointed his pistol at Missy, her eyes got big.
     “But, sir…I can’t…I just can’t. The widow….my grandma…they are both ill…” Her voice faded as the man cocked the gun. She looked at him, her heart sinking. “Why are you doing this?” she asked him softly.
     “You’re going to go with me. I asked you nicely and you refused. So I’m not going to ask nicely any more. Git off the wagon and git on this other horse.” Sert grinned wickedly. “We’ll have a real good time, you and me. Explorin’ the country and all.”
     Missy was plenty old enough now to know what the man had in mind. “Sir, I beg of you. Don’t do this, I know you are a better man than to do something this evil.”
     The outlaw was becoming a bit peeved. “Listen, little missy, you got five seconds to get outta that seat, or I commence shootin’. My first shot blows your right kneecap off.”
     Missy looked at the man strangely when he said “little missy.” She replied, “How did you know my name? Have we met?”
     Now it was Sert’s turn to be perplexed. “No, I don’t think so. What do you mean?”
     “My name is Missy.”
     Sert chuckled. “Well, how about that? I’m a prophet, I can see things. My name is Sert. But name’s don’t change nuthin’. Five seconds.” He aimed the gun at Missy’s kneecap.
     Missy grimaced and started to say something, but she could tell from the man’s expression that he was serious. Resignedly, she nodded, set the brake on the wagon, and disembarked. Oldham’s second horse was the packhorse, but there was room for Missy to sit on it. There were no stirrups so she struggled to get onto the horse’s back; Oldham chuckled again.
     Missy wasn’t amused.
     When she was finally mounted, Oldham motioned for her to ride a little in front of him. “We’ll go aways and rest,” he said. “I ain’t et no breakfast, so you can cook me somethin’ so I kin see how good you are.”
     “And if I’m a bad cook, will you let me go?”
     Sert chuckled. “No. You got other uses, little missy. You should know that.”
     Missy went silent. And morose. What can I do? I could try to gallop away but this horse is so loaded with stuff, that man—Sert?—would surely catch me…Oh, Grandma will be so worried…I have to get away, I just have to…
     But, for the moment, she saw no way to do it.

     They rode on, mostly in silence. Missy had asked Oldham who he was, and he explained.
     “I robbed a bank 15 years ago; I was pore and needed some money. But they caught me and the judge threw me in the hoosegow. 15 years. That’s a long time, little missy.”
     Missy wished he’d quit calling her that. “If you needed money…didn’t you have any friends? Family? Church?”
     “No friends who had any money, either. Family’s all gone. Ain’t a believer. Church folks is all hypocrites anyway.”
     “No, they aren’t. Someone would have helped you.”
     “Well, they didn’t. So I went to jail. I been out for a little while, took care o’ some business, and now I’m headed for Californy. And yore goin’ with me.”
     Missy grimaced again. “Please, Mr. Sert, my grandmother needs me…”
     “Ever’body needs somebody, little missy. She’ll get by.”
     Missy went silent.

     After about an hour, Oldham said, “There’s a clearin’ just beyond that bend up there. We’ll stop for awhile.” He smiled. An’ have some fun. She’s a looker, that’s fer sure. Wow, Sert, this is really yore lucky day…and it’s been over 15 years…
     The clearing Sert spoke of was a few yards off the road and behind some trees. It was an open area, maybe 50 feet wide by 100 feet long. There were some boulders around the rim. He dismounted and waved for Missy to do the same thing. “How’s about some coffee?”
     “I’m not really thirsty.”
     “Yeah. Lot of trouble anyway.” Oldham eyed Missy, who was standing just a few feet from him in the middle of the clearing. He drank from his canteen. Boy, I can’t wait for this…

     Missy was about to run, but she knew she wouldn’t get far. But she had to try something. The way Sert was looking at her was way too suggestive. And then when he said, “Well, if we ain’t gonna drink, then let’s have some fun. Why don’t you… disrobe…and we’ll commence to havin’ a good time.”
     Missy was trembling. “Please, sir…I know…I know you are a better man than this….”
     “No, I ain’t. So quit stallin’.” Sert’s eyes were gleaming. Gleaming with lust…
     “But, Mr. Sert, please…”
     Oldham’s blood was boiling—with lust, and increasingly with anger at Missy’s pleading. “Listen, woman,” he began, as he walked towards the girl. But before he could say anything else, Missy turned and started to run.
     But he was too close. He reached out and grabbed her, spun her around and hit her. Hard. With his fist. Missy’s head snapped back sharply and she groaned and fell to the ground. She was dazed…what?…why?…
     She felt hands on her blouse and she was yanked to her feet. His voice: “When I tell you to do somethin’, you do it. You hear me?” He shook Missy fiercely, her head rocking back and forth, and then he hit her in the stomach. Missy doubled over with an “oooooof,” and then her tormenter threw an uppercut with his left fist and struck her under the chin…

     I love that left uppercut, Oldham thought with a grin. This one’s got a lovely neck…He had a perfect view of it for perhaps a second when Missy’s head snapped far back, exposing her neck from chin to the top of her blouse…

     He hit Missy so hard that she was jerked upright, her back bent, her head jolted back as far as it would go—giving Oldham the view of her neck that he had so admired. She moaned again, and slammed to the earth. Still conscious, she could hear Oldham screaming at her, but she couldn’t make out his words. She felt herself pulled roughly to her feet again, and she opened her eyes just in time to see his right fist coming at her…it smashed into her left jaw. Again, Missy’s head snapped back...

     Oldham was enjoying himself immensely. If’n a woman won’t do what she’s told, she gets what she deserves…His victim was utterly helpless now and that was just the way Oldham liked his women. A few more good licks and then we’ll get to know each other…like the Bible says to do…he giggled at his own irreverent reference…

     Missy was still conscious, but barely. She felt his fist pound into her jaw again…and again…and again…..
     Everything was getting gray for Missy and slowly turning darker. She knew that her life was slipping away. If he hit her three or four more times…
     She grunted as that hard fist battered her face again…
     He’s going to beat me to death…

     Remember me? Well, I remember me, but I couldn’t remember who I was. You remember that. Anyway, when I exited this tale in an earlier chapter you might…remember… that my horse, Horse, had heard another horse nicker. I had gone to investigate and had come to the edge of a clearing when I was absolutely stunned by what I saw. I could not believe what I saw. Utterly shocked into immobility by what I saw. What I saw was…something I had never seen before. And hoped to never see again.
     I had heard a “smack” and a cry a few moments earlier, but I wasn’t sure what it was, though it did sound like a human fist smashing into human skin. By the time I reached the edge of that clearing, I saw a young woman doubled over, holding her stomach. A man was standing in front of her, and he threw a punch under her chin that lifted her up and dropped her onto her back. The monster then picked her up and pounded her face with his right fist four or five times before I finally came to life.
     I pulled my gun and fired a shot into the air. “That’s enough, you brute. You let her go, right now!” And I pointed the gun at him. I hoped, I really hoped, he would try to hit her again so that I could blow his head off.
     The man released the woman and she dropped to the ground like a limp dishrag. He scowled at me. “Beat it, mister. We don’t need you interferin’. This is a family matter and we don’t need your help.” He pointed down at the young woman. “She’s been a-cheatin’ on me. Four or five diff’ernt men. An’ then she runs off with all our money. I’m gonna beat some sense into that woman and teach her a lesson she’ll never forgit.”
     I kept my arm rock steady with the gun pointed right at him. “Buster, I don’t care if she’s gone to bed with every man in the territory, no woman deserves to be beaten the way you were beating her. I ought to blast you into the middle of eternity right now.” And I might have done it except….
     The woman spoke. “Please…” she said to me. She was lying on the ground, her face bloody, but she was reaching one arm out to me. “Please…don’t…don’t hurt him…he doesn’t…doesn’t know…what he’s…doing…” And she collapsed again with a moan.
     I stared at her. This fiend had almost battered her to death and she was appealing in his behalf. I stared at her so incredulously that it almost cost me my life.
     But, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man go for his gun. I quickly looked back at him and fired. I hit him in the gut. He dropped his gun, grimaced, grabbed his stomach, staggered, and fell back. He lay on the ground, groaning, and holding his stomach. He was in pain—there are few things that hurt more than being gut-shot. I didn’t care. I had every intention of letting him lie there and die—which he would soon, the inevitable result of being shot in the stomach.
     I whistled for Horse, and went over to the woman and rolled her over onto her back. Her eyes fluttered. She was only bleeding from the lips, but blood covered her chin and neck. I stood up, went over to Horse, who was now standing at the edge of the clearing, and took a couple of towels from my saddlebags, plus some ointment. There was a stream close by, so I fully immersed one of the towels, rung it out, and went back to the lady.
     I knelt down beside her and started cleaning her face. She was breathing hard, apparently still trying to catch her breath from the beating she had taken. She moaned softly as I wiped off the blood. I applied some of the liniment, and she winced. Then she opened her eyes.
     “Did…did you kill him?”
     “I hope so,” I replied
     She grimaced and shook her head back and forth. “No, no, no….”
     “Is he your husband?”
     She shook her head. “No.”
     “Who is he?”
     She tried to get up. “Please…help…I need…to help him.”
     “You just lie there. I’ll take care of him.”
     “No…no, please….” She struggled to get up, and sighing, I helped her. She staggered over to where the man was lying, holding her stomach. The man was breathing hard, his face a mask of pain. She held out her hand to me. “The towel…the wet one…” Her hand was trembling.
     I gave it to her.
     She moved his hands and opened his shirt. “What…are you…doing?” the brute asked her.
     “I’m going to clean you up. Take you to town…to a doctor.” The man closed his eyes.
     She was moving better now, which surprised me given what I had seen. She wiped the blood off his stomach and looked at me. “We need to stop the flow of blood. I don’t…know how. Do you?”
     I started to say something, but didn’t. Yes, I do. How I knew, I didn’t know, but I knew. So, I knelt down beside the man and, ripping the towel into shreds, I staunched the flow of blood.
     “Is he going to live?” the lady asked me.
     “I really doubt it,” I said. “That’s about the worst place to get shot. Well, better than the heart or head, but he’s going to lose a lot of blood.”
     “We’ve got to get him to town,” the girl said, seemingly desperate. “There’s a doctor there.” She looked at me pleadingly. “Please help me get him on his horse. I’ll take him if you don’t want to go.”
     I looked at her, puzzled. “Who is he? Who are you?”
     She stood up, too quickly, then groaned. I started to help her, but she stayed on her feet without my assistance. “I’ll tell you on the way. Please hurry. Silver Creek is almost two hours away.”
     “All right,” I said, making a face, not understanding her compassion for a man who had been so merciless to her. But I picked the man up and, with her aid, got him into his saddle. He was virtually dead now, unconscious, so I tied him to the saddle.
     “Hurry,” she said, as she mounted the other horse.
     I climbed onto Horse’s back and said, “Lead the way. I don’t know where the town is. But don’t go too fast or the jarring will start him bleeding badly again and he’ll never make it.”

     As Oldham was beating her, Missy knew that she was almost dead. Sert’s fist smashed into her face one more time and then stopped. She drooped, and then hit the ground. She was aware of voices….she opened her eyes…blurry…then clearing…she saw a man pointing a gun at Sert…no…don’t kill him…she pleaded with the man, then gave out…she heard a shot…
     She passed out, but then awoke, feeling something cool on her face…water…she opened her eyes. Saw him. She tried to smile but couldn’t. She talked to him and found out that Sert was still alive, but barely. The water and medicine revived her enough…I’ve got to help Sert...Her head was throbbing from the beating she had received, but with the man’s help, Sert’s bleeding was stopped.
     Missy looked at the man as he worked on Sert. He’s a nice man. He didn’t have to help me and he doesn’t have to help Sert. He seems to know what he’s doing. I wonder who he is…

     I wondered the same thing. But not at that moment…

     Missy helped the man get Sert into the saddle and on the way to Silver Creek. She started her horse off at a fast trot, but the man said, “Slow down. He’ll start bleeding.”
     “But we’ve got to hurry,” Missy replied anxiously.
     “It’s not going to do any good to hurry if you kill him in the process.”
     Missy grimaced. “Ok. You set the pace.”
     “All right.”
     Missy looked at him. “Do you have experience at this?”
     He had a strange expression on his face…

     I started to answer her question, and then, didn’t know the answer. “Some,” is all I said. Then quickly, to change the subject, I asked, “Who are you? And what hole did you dig that creep out of?”
     The young lady winced. Her face wasn’t in as bad a shape as might be expected, given the beating she had taken. But the left side of her jaw where she had been hit repeatedly, was a nasty shade of purple and red, and her lips were swollen. The ointment I had rubbed on her face had helped the swelling, but she was still puffy. She was leaning forward a little, holding her stomach, and breathing was still a bit of a strain for her. I remember having seen her doubled over so I assumed she had been hit in the stomach as well.
     “I don’t think…he’s that bad. He can’t be,” she responded. “He just…I don’t know…something made him do it…”
     She was in pain, I knew, but when I looked at her again, it seemed that the pain was more than skin deep. Maybe he’s a relative…brother?…lover?…she seems to really care about him…I couldn’t understand it. To me, the man was a monster. Anybody that would do what he did to her ought to be hung upside down by his little toes and have his brains boiled in oil. But I asked her again, “Who are you? And who is he?”
     She explained. “My name is Missy Jacobs. I teach school and live with my grandmother in Silver Creek. I was on my way to the widow Walters’ house—she lives a few miles outside of town. She’s ill. I was taking her some soup and I was going to do some washing and cleaning for her.”

     I looked at her. Now, that’s a sweet thing to do

     She continued. “When I got close to her house, I saw him”—she motioned towards Sert—“sitting on his horse in the middle of the road. He made me…come with him. We went to that clearing. He wanted me to…he was going to…” She stopped, an expression of agony on her face as she looked over at me.
     Now I wanted to kill the guy for sure. “I understand, Missy. Let me guess. You told him ‘no,’ so he thought he’d persuade you a little.”
     She looked dejected. “Yes. I guess so.” Then, agony was on her face again. “If I had done it, then maybe he wouldn’t have gotten shot…”
     I looked at her, incredulous. ”You’d rather have been raped than have him shot??”
     Missy didn’t answer. Her eyes were straight ahead.
     I shook my head in unbelief. “You didn’t know him before?”
     “No,” she said, barely above a whisper.
     'What’s his name?”
     “Sert Oldham, is what he said.”
     That name meant nothing to me. Didn’t even ring a bell in my fog-shrouded mind. Then she asked me the question I knew she would ask but hoped she wouldn’t.
     “Who are you and how did you happen by? Oh, and thank you. I guess you…had to shoot him….”
     “He went for his gun, Missy. I had no choice. I’m sorry.” Man, what am I saying? I’m not sorry I shot that cockroach. I’m sorry I didn’t kill him. But, although I didn’t know it at the time, that was the sort of effect Missy had on everybody. Except maybe her grandmother.
     “It’s ok. I’m sure you did what was right. And thank you for helping him.”
     “You’re welcome,” is all I could think of to say.
     “You didn’t answer my question. Who are you and how did you happen to come by?”
     I had had plenty of time, over the days, to think up a fake name to use until I remembered—if I ever did—my real one. “My name is Thomas Monroe.” Something about that name had jiggled my mind ever since I thought of it, but I just knew it wasn’t the one mama and papa gave me. “I’m just…traveling at the moment and my horse smelled, and then heard, your two horses. I stopped to investigate.” I shrugged.
     “Lucky for me,” she replied. “Not so lucky for Mr. Oldham.”
     “He didn’t need any luck, Missy.” I looked at her. I could tell, even with her face in the condition it was in, that she was a very attractive woman.

     Missy looked at Thomas. He’s a nice looking man…She wanted to find out a little more about him. Personally and character-wise. “You could have…joined him, you know.”
     “And rape you?”
     She gave him a sheepish smile. “A lot of men probably would have.”
     He looked at her like she was insane. Then shook his head. “I don’t play that way, Missy.”
     “Well, I’m glad you don’t.” She paused. “Where are you traveling to? Do you have a job?”
     Now he looked uncomfortable. “I’m just sorta…traveling at the moment. No place in particular.”
     “Are you an outlaw?”
     He glanced at her. “Do you think I am?”
     “No. You aren’t an outlaw…”

     I hope not, but I’m not terribly convinced that she’s a shrewd judge of human character…”Well, thank you.” Then to direct the conversation back at her, I said, “You’re a school teacher, you said?….”
     We talked on, and any answers I gave to her were as vague as possible. She didn’t seem suspicious….

     He’s hiding something…I wonder what it is. He seems so…nice…but…he’s hiding something…I don’t want to push him…He has a nice smile and laughs so easily…I wonder who he really is…

     I continued to wonder about that, too.